Conspicuous Environmentalism – Or How I became Shell-Shocked In The Land Of Green

When asked why I decided to become a winemaker, I answer that to me winemaking is the most perfect union of art, science and agriculture — three things that separate us from the platypus and politicians. 

As a winemaker who has lived and worked in California during a time that can only be described as the “Big Bang” of modern winemaking, I find myself emotionally charged and confused with some of the current trends in the winemaking world.  Having led winemaking teams through periods of transition, I am well aware that with any change (and we all know that change is inevitable) comes a certain degree of discomfort.  I can live with that.  Heck, I’ve learned to welcome and love that little gray space that accompanies change.  Like the spring fog in the Russian River Valley – this gray space can be a place where good things develop.  So I always wait with anticipation for the change that may come our way.  Will it be a welcome scientific development or a ridiculous bust?  Maybe someone will finally isolate a yeast that can take a sugar-rich must and consume part of the sugar in a non-alcohol producing pathway?  Or maybe something that has nothing to do with hard science is lurking in the mist?  Could it be that after years of conspicuous wine consumption and the inherent chase of meaningless numerical scores, the wine drinking population will mature and start seeking a truly refined bottle of wine rather than a trophy to impress their peers?

Right now, we’re in that gray area of change in the wine industry, still waiting to see where we will come out.  Just like with changes in nature, things could go either way.  We all know how our Russian River Valley fog cools the grapes and lets them build flavors after a hot summer day, but that other times, nature can be a harsh bitch.  Sometimes, that fog we so welcome in normal years ends up laying low, refusing to lift and becomes the enabler of a wicked fungus that will turn your prized Chardonnay to a mushy, bitter mess.  I have a nagging feeling we are headed that way in the wine business.

The new movement gaining popularity and attention in the wine media is the “Natural Wine” movement.  Like many of the “green” movements, this seems to have begun with the noble (though not particularly original) thought: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a very pure wine?  One with no artificial intervention whatsoever?  And, wouldn’t such a wine be better than others?” Who could say no to that?

But the curious antagonist in me decided to investigate and see if there is support for a “Natural” label on wine.  I started with the dictionary definition for the word “Natural” as used in this context. “Unadulterated” and “Uncultivated” and “in its original state”.  Ooooh, that sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Certainly the artist in me liked the notion — the romance of something raw, unrefined.  I pictured a hunk of granite worked on by wind and rain, not a chisel and fine files.  My inner artist-winemaker could easily meditate on his Tatami mat and grok the notion of wine in a natural state. 

But the farmer in me?  Not so much.  “Are you kidding me”? my inner farmer winemaker said.  “Are we talking about farming two rose bushes in the back yard or eleven acres of vines?.  No intervention?  Who decides what is an intervention and what isn’t?  Really”?, my farmer side said.

Is our current state of viticulture natural anymore?  Not if I stick to the original meaning of the word.  Vines in nature do not arrange themselves in rows and train their shoots so that humans have an easy time picking them (neither does lettuce or asparagus).  If you wanted to make wine as nature would have it, you’d have to forage for grapes as some do for mushrooms.  Good luck with that, and better learn how to climb trees.  I reflected on the admission of an organic grape grower that he uses Weed Whackers (now there’s a green practice) to control brush.  I remembered feeling slightly duped when I learned that biodynamic farmers rent young and short sheep and bring them for a limited time into their vineyard (otherwise they’d eat the green matter of the vines), to satisfy the requirement for being an “integrated” farm. I reflected on folk who made millions of dollars by placing oil drilling rigs over pristine coral reefs only to come to the wine country, buy a winery and suddenly become greener than spinach.  Words have lost their true meaning and we do nothing about it. Why should the world of wine be any different? I ask myself.  It’s like my friend Jimbo says:  “You can raise free range chickens but unless I put a fence around them, the free range foxes are going to get really fat and happy.”  This farming business, not as easy as art, you know.

The scientist in me prepared a double espresso, sat in front of the computer and said “Come back in a day or two, I need to do some preliminary research” as he Goggled his way to the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations and read section 205.601 (synthetic substances allowed in the production of organic crop production).  Jotting down some compound names like “Copper Sulfate” and “Peracetic Acid” he mumbled here and there and once exclaimed “Tetracycline?!” out loud (allowed until 2012).  I heard him chuckle when he browsed biodynamic practices, I think he accidentally snapped a pencil while trying to follow up on the bibliography quoted on the  “more than organic” website. He also spent a few hours reading the requirements for “Low Input Viticulture”  (LIVE) and reading through the code of sustainable practices developed by the California Wine Institute.  I gave him a small budget, so he set out on the next day to buy some organic, biodynamic, natural and conventional wines and conducted a small consumer tasting panel.  His report was very dry.  There is no scientific or statistically significant data to support any of the claims that “Sustainable”, “Organic”, “Biodynamic” or “Natural” wine is better in any way from wine not certified with one of these labels. The smallest carbon footprint is produced when the wine you buy is from your local winery. That is a scientific fact.

Dave McIntyre recently published a piece in the Washington Post titled “Wine: Green With Confusion” just in time for Earth Day 2011. McIntyre’s piece paints a great portrait of the utter chaos and confusion that prevails in how wine bottles are labeled and marketed in the US.  He reminds us that not long ago, “Organic Lettuce” was a bug-full head of lettuce you bought from a dingy hippie in your local Farmer’s Market.  McIntyre makes a great point in saying that nowadays “Green” is as mainstream as that hippie’s tattoos and that the green movement is at danger of being co-opted by the marketing department.  I think he is spot-on but I believe it has gone further than just that.  It seems to me we let the marketing department co-opt truth.

The artist, farmer and scientist then melt into me, the winemaker.  I put on my trusty pair of Blundstones and took a my Australian Shepherd for a walk in the vineyards.  All this stuff stirred my mind and emotions to ponder language and how it reflects on the human journey.  George Carlin (who I greatly miss) once did a great piece about how with time, we have sanitized the English language and got further away from the true meaning of descriptions.  His example, showed how along the years we went from “Shell Shock” to “Battle Fatigue” to “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and now a new one: “Combat Stress Reaction”.  This made me think about wine.

My first thought was that the same dynamic has affected wine terms.  In simpler and  more honest times, wineries had everyday wines and one or two “Reserve” wines that were truly unique for a reason (great vintages, pedigreed vineyards or additional ageing).  Here we are in the early twenty-first century and “Special Reserve Select” on a label of wine means “This wine is so bland our only hope to sell any is to designate it with a fancy  descriptor”.  Somewhere in the constipated board rooms of corporate America we all tacitly agreed not to rock the boat.  Winery owners agreed  to play along and buy ads in newspapers and invite writers to all-expense paid trips and stays in their guest houses.  Winemakers agreed to let ratings change their personal tastes and allow marketing wizards to write their bios and wine philosophies in a language they would never use.  Lawmakers happily submitted legislation pushed on them by this or that lobbyist as long as they could fatten their next election campaign coffers.  And wine writers, those who should care most about language, agreed to not ask really difficult questions as long as we send them free samples.

My next thought was that wine is not natural; if you leave it to nature – wine becomes vinegar.  There is no wine without human intervention. 

There’s no wonder I feel a little lost and confused.  The idealist in me understands the potential of a noble cause but the pragmatist can spot a fake advertisement from a mile away.  Claiming that one’s wine is “Natural” and unadultared just because you accept your adulterations and reject your neighbor’s is bogus. 

One may claim that language is just words and that words evolve to mean different things as time change.  I say that language is THE thing that makes humans unique  on this planet.  Language is what we use to describe concepts and without concepts we are nothing more than Baboons.  During this “Big Bang” of winemaking, we have opened the floodgates of knowledge and become drunk with self importance.  We are too busy playing with our new toys to notice we have no humility left.

I hope this offends someone, maybe an old-guard writer who can prove me wrong.  Maybe a young blogger who is not averse to hard work and is not afraid to point out that the Green Emperor is not wearing any clothes while keeping their self-importance in check.  I have to get back to making unnatural wine that tastes great and is good for you in moderation.

 Mahatma Gandhi said: “Truth without humility would be an arrogant caricature”. How appropriate in these times of caricature wines and arrogant wine producers.

About the author

Raised by Dolphins in the Sahara Desert, made his first $3 fortune mowing the neighbor's lawn

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